Business feature: Chefs balance showmanship, culinary skills

Shogun chef Thanongsak “Charlie” Gentry performs a trick called the volcano Monday for diners. (Staff photo: Tony Bullocks)

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

At Shogun, and Japanese steakhouses across the country, chefs are taught a style which is part culinary and part showmanship.

At most restaurants, food is prepared out of sight. At Shogun, most often chefs will prepare a variety of dishes with meats, rice and vegetables on a grill in front of the customer.

“I try to make it where it’s a new experience for them,” said Thanongsak Gentry, known as “Charlie” in the restaurant. “If somebody’s in town for one day, I want them to feel like they’ll miss us.”

To accomplish those means, Gentry and the restaurant’s four other chefs try to put spectators at ease with conversation and entertain them with various tricks.

The best known trick is the “volcano” — a move Gentry taught the others that involves stacking chopped onion pieces into a cone, pouring wine and oil inside and lighting the cone to produce a small ball of flames.
The food would taste the same if it was prepared without the “volcano,” Gentry said, but it makes the experience more enjoyable for the customers.

If customers aren’t interested in the show, they can order off the menu and sit in a general dining area with tables and booths in the front. For those customers, the food is prepared in the kitchen area by one of the chefs who works in the kitchen on a rotating shift.

When they cook in front of the customers, the chefs say they try to build a quick rapport by chatting about current events, but admit the tricks do a lot of the work.

James Provolt, who has been a chef since 1998, keeps his customers entertained by flipping a stick of butter with his spatula and throwing salt and pepper around his back.

His brother Wayne, also a chef at Shogun, has a trick where he will flip an egg in the air and let it split by landing on the sie of a spatula.

Gentry said the chefs practice to a point where they attain “muscle memory.” In the same way a golfer hits a tee shot or a basketball player shoots free throws, the chefs try to have the same motion every time they prepare a dish or do a trick.

The only way to accomplish muscle memory, whether it’s a tee shot or a teriyaki dish, is practice.

“We have guys who can sit down (at home) and do nothing all day,” Gentry said, “and twirl a knife in their spare time.”

That’s something Provolt said he did for hours a night when he started. Though he said he’ll still screw up a trick from time to time, customers are generally forgiving and enjoy the act.

“My food quality goes way up when I’m having a good time,” Provolt said.

Interaction with the customers is a two-way street, Gentry said. For example, if a customer is allergic to (or simply doesn’t like) an ingredient, there’s a direct line of communication and visual evidence the ingredient was never added.

Provolt and Gentry had no chef experience when the started at Shogun.

“It wasn’t something I was looking to do at first,” said Provolt, who started as a delivery driver in 1998 and was cooking soon after. “I kind of fell into it.”

As did Gentry. Now 44, Gentry came the United States from Thailand in 1969 and spent many years at Cannon Air Force Base. When he was no longer associated with the military, he said he worked a variety of jobs, even moving to Florida temporarily to find something that paid enough to support his family.

He ended up at Shogun in 1998 when a friend was planning on purchasing the restaurant and hiring him to run it. The deal fell through after a few months, but Gentry said by that point he had learned enough that he lucked out and accepted a full-time job as a chef.

Provolt said the training he and his brother have received at Shogun may help them open a restaurant someday. His chef’s act, however, doesn’t go over so well at home.

“I’ll have a knife twirling (while I’m cooking) at home,” Provolt said with a laugh. “My wife doesn’t like that too much.”